Keeping a faun, a Scamp and a Firebird in Line

02.11.08
Colin Currie
The New York Times

Marin Alsop's motley program with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall on Saturday evening told several colorful tales, evoking the ill-fated scamp of Strauss's "Till Eulenspiegel" and the exotic protagonists of Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun" and Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite. But it only hinted at the tale that some listeners were most curious about: how Ms. Alsop's relationship with the orchestra is faring.

When the orchestra announced Ms. Alsop's appointment in 2005 - positioning her to become the first female music director of a major American orchestra, as many have called her to the chagrin of the Buffalo Philharmonic, led by JoAnn Falletta - some players rose loudly in protest. Those hostilities seem to have passed, and most reports about Ms. Alsop's first season on the job have been bright.

Certainly the playing here, in Ms. Alsop's first New York appearance as music director, was excellent, testifying both to the fine condition in which Ms. Alsop's immediate predecessor, Yuri Temirkanov, left the orchestra and to Ms. Alsop's quick ability to capitalize on it. And Ms. Alsop - nattily dressed in a black pantsuit, with red trim at the cuffs and under the back flap, and conducting without a score - showed complete control, infectious enthusiasm and canny pacing.

But these relatively brief showpieces are staples of the veteran guest conductor. All too familiar to players, they can be polished to a fine sheen in short order by someone as experienced and efficient as Ms. Alsop. What remains to be seen is how the chemistry will hold up in less familiar terrain demanding sustained intensity and concentration, the long line that was a Temirkanov trademark.

Where Ms. Alsop will have it all over Mr. Temirkanov, in any case, is in her passions for American and contemporary music. Those were represented here by the New York premiere of Steven Mackey's "Time Release," a 2005 concerto for percussion - mostly marimba - and orchestra.

The title and many of the musical gestures derive from characteristics of the tone production of a marimba: in Mr. Mackey's words, "the note will bloom, decay and die relatively quickly in a predetermined time line." He mirrors the instrument's "poing," as he calls it, with short-long patterns in the orchestral instruments.

That poing was more pervasive in the slow movement, Strolling Melody-Smooth/Bumpy, than in the cascading marimba figures of the first two movements. The finale, called Alleluia (perhaps with a nod to Rachmaninoff's "Symphonic Dances"), leaves the disjunct tunes and occasional atonalisms of the earlier movements behind in a prairie-style hymn.

The work was written for the Scottish percussionist Colin Currie, who performed it nimbly and brilliantly here. Ms. Alsop (now using a score) and the orchestra gave full and effective voice to the wide-ranging instrumentation.

The sizable audience was warmly responsive to that work and, all evening, to Ms. Alsop, who rewarded it with an encore: Hindemith's "Ragtime," a swirling riff on the C minor Fugue from Book 1 of Bach's "Well-Tempered Clavier."

Though much of the program, including Mr. Mackey's piece, made for easy listening, the audience and the hall did not. In one section of orchestra seats, a high-pitched beeping, possibly from a hearing aid, intruded in quiet passages throughout the Strauss and the Mackey. And after intermission a hum that sounded like a loudspeaker covered the opening of both the Debussy and the Stravinsky.